Ethnic Issues

Mysterious Motives: India’s Raids on the Burma Border

By Bertil Lintner 30 June 2015

It has been several weeks since Indian troops crossed the Burma border and attacked camps where ethnic rebels form India’s volatile northeast have camps, and, despite some press coverage immediately after the event, few details have emerged—and what has been said has been utterly contradictory.
Some Indian press reports suggest that it was, at least in part, a joint operation between the Indian and Burmese armies. Others say that although that wasn’t the case this time, the Burmese government has promised to help India tackle insurgents from the northeastern states of Nagaland, Manipur and Assam who are ensconced in remote areas of northwestern Sagaing Region.

A statement from the presidential office in Naypyiaw, issued the day after the attacks took place, asserted that fighting had only broken out on the Indian side, denying that any outside forces were using Burma as a staging ground for attacks into India. The Indian cross-border raids came in response to a rebel ambush on an Indian army convoy in Manipur on June 4, when 18 soldiers were killed and at least 11 injured. It was the deadliest in a spate of similar attacks in India’s northeastern states over the past few months.

The Burmese government’s account of events is the easiest to refute. As The Irrawaddy reported in November of last year, Indian rebels have had camps in northwestern Burma since the 1970s, when the Indian Army managed to drive ethnic Naga rebels out of their bases on the Indian side of the border. From there, beyond reach of the Indian Army, they have been able to launch cross-border raids into India.

In late 2011, the Indian journalist Rajeev Bhattacharyya and photographer Pradip Gogoi trekked across the border and reached Taga, a village near the Chindwin River north of Singkaling Hkamti, where they met and interviewed Paresh Barua, the commander of the United Liberation Front of Asom [Assam] (ULFA), Shangwang Shangyung Khaplang, the leader of one faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland named after himself (NSCN-K, “K” for Khaplang), and rebels from the Indian state of Manipur. Khaplang is a Naga from the Burma side, but has also a following inside Manipur and Nagaland in India. It is because of Khaplang’s influence in the Naga Hills of Burma that the other insurgents can maintain bases there. Bhattacharyya chronicled his trek and his impressions of this remote corner of Burma in several articles in the Indian media, and his excellent book Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Man, which was published in India last year.

The camp near Taga serves as headquarters for a new alliance of rebels on the Indo-Burma border, the oddly named United Liberation Front of Western Southeast Asia (ULFWSA), which brings together NSCN-K, ULFA and two smaller groups in Assam. Manupuri rebels are also attached to the united front. According to Bhattacharyya, there are altogether about sixty camps inside Burma where rebels from the Indian side are staying. Some of these are big, like the one near Taga, while others are medium-sized or small.

The NSCN-K entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Indian government in 2001, and also struck a ceasefire deal with Burmese authorities in April 2012, making it the only insurgent group in the region to have ceasefire agreements with the governments of two sovereign states. However, in March of this year the NSCN-K abrogated its ceasefire agreement with Burma—and the ambushes on the Indian side began.

It is unclear what prompted the NSCN-K’s decision to go back to war, but the brain behind the ULFWSA is not Khaplang—who is in his mid-70s and, because of his age and stature in the Naga Hills of Burma, was made the official head of the alliance—but the younger and much more dynamic ULFA leader Paresh Barua. While Bhattacharyya and Gogoi met him at Taga, he is known to be spending most of his time in China. The weapons used by the united-front rebels are acquired from arms dealers on China, or they are made in a gun factory at Pangwa, just across the border in Kachin State. Pangwa is in an area controlled by Zakhung Ting Ying, a former commander of the Communist Party of Burma who made peace with the Burmese government in 1989 and now heads a local, government-recognized militia force. Ting Ying is also a member of the Amyotha Hluttaw, the Upper House of Burma’s Parliament.

The factory is known to have been producing automatic rifles, pistols, revolvers and shotguns—and among Ting Ying’s customers are rebels from India’s northeast. The guns are transported in vehicles along the road down to Myitkyina and on to Mogaung and the jade mining area at Hpakant. From there—in order to bypass areas controlled by the Kachin Independence Army, which would levy “taxes” in cash or in kind on the shipments—the guns are transported along smaller roads to Singkaling Hhamti and beyond. Guns from China are smuggled across the Burma border at Ruili and then trucked via Lashio, Mandalay and Monywa up to the Indian border.

So is China involved with the Indian rebels, as alleged in many press reports in India? Perhaps not directly, but it is evident that Chinese security services, at the very least, are turning a blind eye to the traffic—which would serve China’s geopolitical interests in the region. Apart from sheltering Barua, Chinese intelligence officers are also known to have visited the camp near Taga on more than one occasion.

The Chinese may not want to set India’s northeast ablaze, but it is in Beijing’s interest to cause frictions and disruptions in Burma’s relations with India. Over the past four years, Burma has distanced itself from its old ally China—and established closer contacts not only with the West but also India. A closer, more cordial relationship between Burma and India is not in China’s interest. Instability along the border—rebel raids into India and retaliatory, Indian cross-border attacks—would serve that purpose.

It is to China’s advantage that Burma’s authorities are paying only scant interest in events along the country’s western border. As long as the Indian rebels are not bothering the Burma Army, they are being left alone. According to a testimony by an Indian soldier who took part in the June cross-border raids and published in the Indian press, the operation was kept secret even for the Burma Army officers in the area so they would not tip off the Indian rebels in advance. Several of those officers are collecting protection money from the Indian rebels, the soldier alleged. It is also clear that the Burmese government was not informed about the Indian cross-border raids until after they had taken place.

For this and other more compelling reasons, it is highly unlikely that Burma would agree to take part in any joint operations with the Indian Army. On the formal level, the Burmese government does have a ceasefire agreement with the NSCN-K—and while the attacks in India and the cross-border raids into Burma were taking place, Khaplang himself was recuperating in a Rangoon hospital, where he was visited by no other than Aung Min, the Burmese government’s chief peace negotiator.

Perhaps more importantly, the Burma Army is already stretched thin on too many fronts in Kachin and Shan states, where it for several years has been battling Kachin, Palaung and Kokang rebels—and there suffered extremely heavy casualties. The Burma Army has neither the resources nor the manpower to become engaged in yet another battlefront in the country. Fighting India’s wars is not a priority for the Burma Army; it’s not even on its agenda. And if the Burma Army were to agree to joint operations with India, it would be tantamount to admitting what the Burmese government has consistently denied—that rebels from India have bases on the Burmese side of the border—and such an admission is extremely unlikely to happen.

Thus, we may see more cross-border raids into India and Indian counterattacks into Burma’s territory. So China may, in the end, get what it wants—the mayhem will continue along the Indo-Burma border—and that, as long as Burma remains in a total denial of the actual situation on the ground, is bound to have an adverse impact on any future relations between New Delhi and Naypyidaw.